[PHOTO AT LEFT - Members of the Manila Police District SWAT team patrol an area near an LRT station in Manila yesterday, a day after President Arroyo ordered the military and the police to prepare for a possible spillover of hostilities from Mindanao. - Photo By EDD GUMBAN]

MANILA, AUGUST 23, 2007 (STAR) By James Mananghaya - The al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf bandit group are the likely suspects behind a bombing in Zamboanga City that left 14 people injured, security officials said yesterday.

“They are a suspect,” regional police director Chief Superintendent Jaime Caringal said.

He said Tuesday night’s bomb in Zamboanga City could have been intended to divert government resources from the continuing military operations in Sulu and Basilan, where government troops are pursuing the Abu Sayyaf bandits.

“We have long been preparing for diversions,” Caringal said in a news conference in Manila.

Intelligence sources also revealed the Abu Sayyaf placed the explosives in a public square in Zamboanga City in a bid to divert the military from its ongoing offensive in Sulu and Basilan.

“It was the Abu Sayyaf who did that,” a ranking intelligence official said.

The security official pointed out the bomb fragments found at the site bore the signature of the Abu Sayyaf.

Another intelligence official warned the Zamboanga bombing could indicate renewed bombing attacks from the extremist group.

He claimed the Zamboanga attack may have been carried out by Abu Sayyaf underlings.

“The Abu Sayyaf have new graduates. They were deployed on a test mission in Mindanao. The bombing (last Tuesday night) only indicates that there are more to come,” the official said.

The Zamboanga City police continued to sift for clues at the bomb site and have found parts of a clock that was used as a timer and fragments of a magnet. Ammonium nitrate was the explosive used, they said.

Police also found another explosive device on a bus after its passengers disembarked at a crowded terminal in Pagadian City.

The bomb, hidden in a powdered milk can, was found 15 minutes before it was set to explode, according to Chief Inspector Oscar Buenaobra, Pagadian City police chief.

The bomb was timed to explode at midnight, when the bus was scheduled to arrive at the terminal. The bus driver may have saved lives by arriving early, Buenaobra said.

Alert up

The two incidents heightened security concerns in Zamboanga City, which is on alert for further bombings, particularly at churches and mosques, airports and bus terminals and other sites where people congregate.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Gen. Hermogenes Esperon Jr. said the Zamboanga bombing attack could have been carried out by other armed groups with links to the Abu Sayyaf.

“It is still the Abu Sayyaf that we are looking into, but we still have to come up with the official report after the investigation that is being conducted by the police and our ground operatives in the area,” Esperon said.

Esperon, however, downplayed the possibility of a diversionary attack occurring in Metro Manila.

While the terror alert in Metro Manila remains at low level, Esperon said security forces have implemented tight measures to prevent terrorist attacks.

“The terror level remains at low in Metro Manila, nevertheless we are taking precautionary measures. We don’t want to react when something happened already,” he said.

Esperon said there had been no intelligence reports indicating an imminent terror attack in the nation’s capital.

A Mindanao lawmaker, on the other hand, warned of a possible spillover of violence in Metro Manila due to the ongoing offensive against the Abu Sayyaf.

Anak Mindanao Rep. Mujiv Hataman said the explosion in Zamboanga City should prompt authorities to be on guard against the possibility of bombing attacks in other cities.

“I cannot categorically say that the Zamboanga incident is the handiwork of the Abu Sayyaf, which the military is pursuing in Basilan and Sulu,” Hataman said.

He stressed that if the Abu Sayyaf was behind the explosion, it would not be a remote possibility that the bandit group would launch another attack in other cities.

Philippine National Police (PNP) chief Director General Oscar Calderon assured that all security measures are in place and appealed to the public to continue their daily routine.

“Ayaw kong matakot ang mga tao (I don’t want our people to be afraid). I want to assure them the PNP and the AFP are ready to do (the) job,” Calderon said.

Calderon said last Tuesday’s bombing attack could have been a diversionary tactic by the Abu Sayyaf to shift the attention of the military.

“We believe the attack was meant to ease the pressure and divert the attention on the Abu Sayyaf, which is now being pursued in Basilan and Sulu,” Calderon said.

Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita said security forces are tracking down the reported Abu Sayyaf cells in Metro Manila that might try to stage diversionary attacks in the capital.

Ermita made the disclosure after President Arroyo ordered security forces to be on full alert as the ongoing campaign in Jolo and Basilan may trigger attacks elsewhere in the country.

“The terrorists, no matter how small their number, can stage deadly attacks,” Ermita said.

Ermita said authorities have taken steps in anticipation of possible terror attacks but stressed that there is no intelligence indicating an imminent terror attack in Metro Manila.

President Arroyo is flying to Zamboanga City today to lead a command conference with defense and military officials, he said.

“The President would like to assess the situation on the ground,” Ermita said.

Authorities, meanwhile, arrested two suspected Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) militants tagged behind the spate of bomb attacks in Central Mindanao since May.

Tacurong city police chief Superintendent Joel Limson identified the arrested suspects as Tongan Fatimah and Bapah Tolia.

Limson said Muslim clerics and local officials tipped authorities about the two suspects behind the series of bombing attacks in Tacurong and surrounding areas. – With Jaime Laude, Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jess Diaz, John Unson, Roel Pareno, Michael Punongbayan, AP, AFP

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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